At age 3, Jim Hartung watched his older brother and sister take acrobatics at a dance studio. Soon he could do the moves just as well.
His family set up mattresses, a small set of parallel bars and rings in the basement of their South Omaha home, and the kids' abilities grew. But none faster than Jim's.
At Sokol Hall, he came under the guidance of Phil Cahoy Sr.
Cahoy's son, Phil Jr., a year younger than Hartung, also was one of the promising youngsters working out there.
"I think having Phil Jr. around helped Jim," said Rich Beran, their coach at Omaha South. "While he was growing up, Jim liked to play around a bit. But Phil gave 110 percent in practice. That rubbed off on Jim."
Hartung also was a good diver and a wrestler, but in junior high, he told his dad that he would concentrate on gymnastics.
By the time he reached high school, he was a star.
"He was like a cat; he had a kinetic sense of where his body was at all times," Beran said. "And he had confidence. He knew he was good."
The 5-foot-5 Hartung led Omaha South to four consecutive state titles, winning 18 gold medals and earning The World-Herald's high school athlete of the year award in 1978.
In the national high school all-around meet, Hartung finished eighth as a sophomore, the only competitor who wasn’t a senior. He won the event the next two years.
He was an instant hit at Nebraska, where he helped the Huskers win their first national gymnastics title — the first of five in a row — as a freshman. By the time he was a junior, in 1980, he established himself as the No. 1 gymnast in the country by winning the NCAA all-around title.
NU coach Francis Allen said Hartung's versatility set him apart.
"He qualified for every event at the national championships," Allen said. "He could have won any or all of them."
Hartung set NCAA records for individual event championships (seven) and gold medals (11, counting his seven event titles and four team titles).
A bigger stage awaited. He made the 1980 and '84 U.S. Olympic teams, although the '80 team did not travel to Moscow in protest of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.
In 1984, Hartung picked up a gold medal in the team all-around, scoring a 9.9 in the parallel bars that kept the U.S. safely ahead of second-place China. When he landed, the crowd in Los Angeles roared and waved American flags.
"Since I was a little kid, I dreamed of the Olympic Games," he said afterward.
A crowd estimated at more than 10,000 greeted him when he returned to Omaha for a parade downtown that led to a ceremony at the Civic Auditorium.
After he retired as an athlete, he coached with the U.S. national team and was recognized as one of the top judges in international competition. He returned to the University of Nebraska in 2006 as an assistant men's gymnastics coach.
Hartung said that over the years he has fondly reflected on his Olympic days and all of the honors he received helping the Huskers win four consecutive NCAA titles.
"I don't think there was one moment that was better than all the rest," he said. "As you grow up, you set a goal. When you achieve it, you put it into that memorable category."
Played for: Omaha South High, Nebraska Cornhuskers and U.S. Olympic team
Best athlete from Nebraska played with or against: High school, college and Olympics teammate Phil Cahoy
Early sign of greatness: As a 15-year-old, he won the Junior Olympics in Ithica, N.Y., competing in the 15-to-18 age group. "At that time, I started to think I could compete with the best guys."
Hartung was No. 10 in the inaugural Nebraska 100 list in 2005. See more about the 2005 list »